Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ethics update (not what you think ... well actually ...)

The Burgh Report points out that Chad Herman has also gotten fed up with Raven-Speak (, FWIW. He does more than let the thing speak for itself, editorially speaking. He does say something I thought of in my previous post, but did not mention: even prepared, written missives from the Mayor, his office or campaign are filled with the silted language. Even when they have time to consider, they go ahead and choose some whoppers.

Chris Briem of Null Space ( joins a the growing chorus of bloggers (Tube City Almanac, the Conversation) who are saying, in effect, the burghospree’s obsession with the Mayor and … well with the Mayor ignores really important other issues; specifically the Duquesne City School District. He is, of course, right, they are right. On the other hand, as a guy who does accounting full time (at a low level) and taxes part time, I’m interested in ethics, so I am going to stay with that story for at least one more post.

That story being the Mayor’s possible breach of ethics at the Lemieux tournament. But I want to look at a sideline of that issue, the city’s ethics code. The ethics code is the guideline the ethics board should be using, yet in my impression they seem to be floundering a bit. The Mayor, on the other hand, seems fairly clear and may have valid point, even taking dollars amounts into account. The City Law department seems to concur.

The Mayor appears to be claiming an absolute exception to any ethical impropriety based on the part of the city’s ethics code that is an exception to not accepting anything of value from an interested party. The relevant exception reads: “e) Admissions to charitable, civic, political, or other public events; “. The next exception has a dollar figure listed for cultural or athletic events (no more than $100 per event and no more than $250 per year). So apparently there is no limit on the value of admission to charitable events, and that is where the Mayor and the City Law Department are headed. He hedged his bets, though, mentioning that he is returning the gift bag he received.

Still, there is a part of the code that gives lie to the Mayor’s argument. In the back of the city ethics handbook is a FAQ, a frequently asked questions section. On the very last page of the handbook, a relevant question and answer reads this way:

” Q. Can a City employee accept complimentary admission to charitable, civic, political or other public advents?
A. Yes, with limitations. No City official, City employee or agent of the City may accept more than $250.00 per calendar year in the aggregate nor may they accept more than $100.00 per calendar year from any single person, agent or other interested party. (City Code § 197.07)”

This could be a problem for the Mayor, linking, in the ethics handbook, the $100 limit and charitable events. On the other hand, Laurel Valley’s greens fees are a reasonable $27 during the week. The value of breakfast and lunch (I believe the meals provided) might not exceed $50 for the two days, so by returning the gift bag the Mayor might pull off staying within the $100 limit.

Keep in mind the value of the Oakmont Country Club event the Mayor went to was advertised as $900. Perhaps the ethics board should ask about that.

I think the totality of the circumstances of the Lemieux charity event are such it is possible to talk about the propriety of the Mayor’s attending it, but it sounds like Danny Schiff is grasping at straws when he talks about the perception of impropriety because of the $27,000.

I do think it is time to update the city’s ethics code, to better deal with these issues (especially if this Mayor is going to be around for a while). I (and one other: Bruce Ledewitz, think the $100 single/$250 yearly limits are too low. I think $200/$1000 is much more reasonable, and the higher limits would encourage better record keeping by the Mayor and others. I think there could also be more explicit language in the exceptions, such as clearly having all events covered under the dollar limitations, or alternatively, explicitly excluding charitable events from the dollar limitation. It could be more explicit about whether the exceptions are only for admissions to charitable events, or also participation.

I would doubt my current councilman would look too favorably towards me, but perhaps I can approach Pat Dowd in January on this. But the ethics board might look at the handbook itself. I guess that it can do that, but then all bets are off for council (and by extension, the public) getting a voice in ethics code updating.


Skip said...

Good points you're making here, Ed.

Skip said...
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